The most important part of any level of coursework in creative writing, graduate or undergraduate, is workshop. This is of course, aside from the actual act of writing, but really–even that takes a back seat to your workshop responsibilities. When I started workshop at the graduate level, I was at a disadvantage. Because of my unique program, the highest level of workshop I had gone through was intermediate level or ENG 320 at it’s listed here. Typically (with an undergrad degree in CW) you’ll go up through one to two 400-level or experienced workshops. I missed out on these, but usually they are pretty large in size and you don’t get much work done (and don’t appreciate most the feedback you get back anyway). But the experience is still valuable in that it teaches you the dynamics of workshop and what is expected of you. You should go into every workshop wanting to be as helpful and constructive as possible because it all boils down to respect: if those in your workshop don’t respect you or your writing, then you won’t be getting anything helpful back from them and to earn that respect, you have to work hard to show that you respect them.
So here is a list of things to keep in mind for workshop, from what you are expected to provide to how you should behave. Most of this will probably be common sense, but every now and then you’ll run into someone that clearly missed the memo.
1) Read every story twice. The first time through should be to get a general sense of the story. Did it make sense? Did anything stick out to you as good or bad? The second time around is to make sure you read it correctly and to make any necessary line edits. One read through just won’t do. Three reads is best, but not everyone has time for that.
2) Line edit. Make sure to mark any spelling, grammar, or word choice errors, and also any lines that worked particularly well, didn’t work at all, made you laugh, etc. Basically, mark up the story to improve it. Cut things you don’t think are necessary. You should note if there is something that you think should be added. Mark if something made you laugh, or at what point in the story you became confused, or lost interest. You want to mark anything that will be helpful to the author.
3) Make notes. Jot down anything that comes to mind while reading the story. It can be your shock at an event in the exposition, laughter as a funny piece of dialogue, or your opinion about a character’s appearance. This is helpful as notes during discussion, but also so the author knows what you are thinking while you’re reading their story. If you’re feeling the wrong emotion at the wrong time, then they might need to change how they write that scene. And it also makes reading through people’s critiques more entertaining. I’ve seen people draw pictures and smiley faces–have fun with it.
Writing your Response
1) Your response should be at least one page single-spaced. These guidelines are usually up to the person who is running the workshop, but to be safe, it’s always good to assume at least a page. Anything less that that shows that you put very little effort into your response and no one appreciates being short-changed.
2) Explain what you think the story is about. The first thing you want to include in the response is what you think the story is about. This doesn’t mean give the author a rehash of the events you just read, the author already knows what happens in his or her story. It means discuss the themes that are present. Is this a story about personal growth? The human spirit? Dealing with one’s impending death? If you are way off base from what the author is going for, the author had better re-evaluate how he or she is presenting the story. It doesn’t mean you’re stupid if you’re wrong (unless you skimmed the story once and decided you could still participate).
3) What is working in this piece? This is everyone’s favorite part of a critique to read, where you explain what about the story you liked. Pretty simple! But make sure you find at least a few things to mention here, even if you have to dig deep.
4) Suggestions for improvement. This is where you offer suggestions for improvement. You can mention the work you did in the line edits here, but only to show example of something bigger you’re getting at. Use the response for larger ideas that you think should be re-evaluated. You should be considering big picture and little picture, but not so little that you are pointing out spelling errors (because that’s just annoying).
1) Be positive. Nothing can ruin a workshop faster than someone who is negative about everything. You can dislike things, but find positive things to add as well.
2) Don’t dominate discussion. Give everyone a chance to add something to the conversation. You are not the only person who read the story, nor are you the only person with an option.
3) Don’t nitpick. The most frustrating thing is workshop is spending 20 minutes on whether or not you like a character’s name, which can easily be changed. Comment on it and move on.
4) Address the writing, not the person. Make sure nothing gets too personal, otherwise feelings will get hurt and that does not make for a very productive workshop.
5) Participate! It’s really frustrating if someone just sits in the corner and doesn’t say anything. If they put work into responding to your work, you should put some effort in responding to theirs.
6) If someone disagrees with you, don’t be afraid to defend your opinion. Not everyone will feel the same way about everything. And even if you’re the only person in the workshop who likes or dislikes something, it’s okay to champion your point. The author deserves to know all the options and how everyone feels about each one. Even if you think people will judge you for it, they probably won’t give it a second thought once they walk out of the room. I once witnessed a very heated debate about onomatopoeia. Everyone stuck to their guns and disagreed tremendously, but they still get along just fine.
1) Submissions should be double spaced with page numbers. For the love of all things readable, please always do this. If you forget page numbers, write them in. There is no excuse for turning in a submission where people can’t refer to page numbers during discussion.
2) Get your submissions to everyone in a timely manner. Although you’ll find many people do all their responses pretty last minute, please turn your submission in on time. Giving people enough time to work on your response means better responses for you and fewer headaches for everyone else.
3) Try not to preface your work too much, if at all. Sometimes longer works need a bit of an explanation, like telling your peers that it is the beginning of a novel, or a continuation of last week’s portion, etc. But unless you’re making important clarification that will significantly impact how your story is read, leave the notes off the page. You want your story to be evaluated as a stand-alone piece because that’s how it will be received in the publishing world.
4) Sit quietly and take notes. When your story is being workshopped, they will talk about it like you aren’t really there. You can’t explain anything and you can’t clarify. Your writing has to do all your talking for you. People will be tempted to ask you questions, but you shouldn’t answer until the very end when it’s your time to talk. Let them hash it out–their discussion will be much more helpful to you in fixing what ever confused them in the first place.
5) Have questions prepared. At the end of your workshop, you’ll have the option to ask any questions that may not have been answered in workshop. Have some prepared. Use your notes from during the discussion. Have them clarify things or comment on topics that didn’t come up. This is still your time, use it!
General House Keeping
1) Don’t show other people’s work to people not in workshop. This becomes a problem when people starts showing unpolished rough drafts of other people’s work to those outside of class who then criticize it as if it were a finish piece. In workshop you are submitting unfinished and unpolished work that is still in progress. It’s not your piece of writing to show off. It doesn’t belong to you and it is not at your digression who sees it. You trust your peers not to show your unfinished work to other people, have the same curtsey for them.
2) Don’t bad-mouth anyone’s work. Grad school is a small place. It will get back to them and it will not be pretty.
3) Turn in your responses, seriously. No, but seriously. It’s really annoying if someone puts in a bunch of time and effort into responding to your work only to have you slack off and not respond at all. Email or preferably a hard copy stabled to the story, just get it to the author.
4) Make an appointment to talk to the professor a few days after class about your submission. He or she will probably have some additional comments for you, or at least comments on how discussion went. This is a great time to get some more feedback on your story and to make sure you’re headed in the right direction. It’s usually better to wait a few days before meeting though, to let the discussion from workshop sink in a little. Make sure to go prepared with questions!
5) Concerns about workshop? Talk to the professor. This is really the best way to solve any issues in workshop.